One of the most entertaining films playing at this year's Seattle International Film Festival is the French comedy, OSS-117, a spy spoof set in the 1950s. Starring Jean Dujardin (who, during the filming of OSS-117, suddenly became a Very Big Star in France for his work on a previous film) and Bérénice Bejo, the movie takes us into the world of French super-spy Hubert Bonisseur de La Bath (aka Agent OSS-117). Hubert is of the bumbling variety of spy, who, in the tradition of Maxwell Smart, Inspector Gadget, and Austin Powers, somehow succeeds in spite of his ineptitude.
When Jack Jefferson, an undercover French agent, is killed, OSS-117 is sent on a mission to Egypt to ferret out what happened. He promptly fumbles his way through social interactions with various representatives of the Muslim culture, blithely insulting while intending to confer favor, and nearly starting a rebel uprising by taking out the holy man calling devout Muslims to prayer, because it's interrupting his sleep.
Along for the ride (and frequently insulted as well) with OSS-117 are the deceased agent's secretary Larmina (charmingly portrayed by Bejo), Princess Al Tarouk, the daughter of an ousted royal, who keeps finding herself in Hubert's bed even as she tries to attack him, and Slimane, the loyal manager of the poultry company that served as the front for Jefferson's undercover work. Who took Jefferson out? Was it the rival poultry company owner, whose business suffered from the competition? Perhaps the heads of lamb and beef conglomerates? Or maybe someone connected with a disappeared Russian ship loaded with illegal arms? There are many leads to follow, and follow them Hubert does, blissfully unaware of his own blistering incompetence.
An interesting detail that came out of the Q&A following the film was that it was adapted from a very serious French spy novel series. Credit must be given to the screenwriters, then, for taking a work that took itself seriously, and turning it on its ear to make a delirious comedy. The laughable moments come fast and hard in OSS-117; the packed fest crowd I saw it with was beyond appreciative, often laughing so hard at one joke, you very nearly missed the next.
What makes the film work so well, apart from some dazzling acting by Dujardin and Bejo, is the approach director Michel Hazanavicius takes to the humor. The film is about a spy bollixing his way through a Muslim country -- potentially delicate subject matter in this day and age. Hazanavicius neatly sidesteps this dilemma by keeping the movie's feet firmly planted in the 1950s. OSS-117 stays very true to the filmmaking style of the 1950s, in everything from the back-lighting to the acting style and delivery of lines; from the wonderfully cheesy "driving" scenes clearly filmed in a studio, to Dujardin's faithful use of characteristic vintage "spy poses," facial expressions, and movements.
More importantly, by making Hubert and not the Muslims he's insulting the buffoon, Hazanavicius keeps the movie from being mean-spirited. The Muslim characters in the film are never stereotypical. Larmina is smart, witty, fashionable, and can take care of herself; Slamine, the poultry manager, is quietly dignified in the face of Hubert's insulting behavior. The stereotypes Hazanavicius explores in the film are those of Western racism and cultural misunderstanding; one might consider OSS-117 to be representative of Western insensitivity in general.
Hubert is a French character, but his behavior transcends his nationality, making the audience aware of their own commonalities with him; when we laugh at Hubert in this film, we laugh at ourselves, but we also stop to think about the ways in which we stereotype or misunderstand other cultures. OSS-117 was an enormous hit in France, and, so far at least, has not raised the ire of the French Muslim community. Of course, as Hazanavicius noted in the Q&A, the response to the film is probably mitigated by the fact that it's a French film, made by a French director, and not an American product, but nonetheless credit should be given to the director and screenwriters for their astute handling of potentially explosive subject matter.